Illegal whiskey explodes


PHILADELPHIA - Judging from the size of an illegal still discovered in a derelict North Philadelphia garage, Philadelphia has a powerful taste for moonshine.

The kind of stuff that provides full-body anesthesia before removing the hair from your chest. One sip is enough for a good jolt. A cup will put you down for the night.

Investigators said, the booze factory exploded in a roar recently when one of its boiling kettles overheated.

The gaping hole on the third floor of the building, on North Uber Street near Montgomery Avenue, exposed a full-scale distillery with at least six 500- gallon tanks.

The setup included plumbing, heating, ventilation and waste-disposal systems. Dozens of plastic jugs were piled inside.

"This is huge," said Sgt. Stacey Marshall, of the state police Bureau of Liquor Enforcement. "We're talking about an extremely sophisticated operation with huge steel vats.

"I guess there must be a lot of people with a taste for this stuff," said Marshall.

Professional operation

"There are legal microbreweries that are not as well-put-together as this place."

And it was operating without notice for months, maybe years, right under the nose of neighbors and law-enforcement agencies.

No suspects have been named yet, said a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is heading the investigation.

"It appears to be a fairly well-organized still," said Mark Chiat, assistant special agent in charge of the Philadelphia office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is heading the investigation.

"We don't uncover these very often, especially inside the city limits," Chiat said. "It's the kind of thing you usually see in remote areas."

Marshall agreed: "I was always under the impression that it came up from the South."

Moonshine is sold mainly in neighborhood speakeasies that operate well under the radar of law enforcement.

Though licensed bars and liquor stores provide an ample supply of booze to the community, the illegal joints are preferred by thousands of Philadelphians because they are convenient and cheap. They are often open 24 hours a day, and a shot can be had for a buck.

Up to $25 a gallon

Depending on supply and demand, a gallon ranges from $12 to $25. Backwoods distillers in North Carolina and Virginia have provided much of the city's supply for generations, going back before Prohibition. In March 2000, 27 people were indicted for running Southern moonshine into the city.

Authorities estimated that the captured moonshiners produced 1.5 million gallons of liquor between 1992 and 1999, ducking nearly $20 million in taxes. With the Southern pipeline broken, it appears at least one entrepreneur moved his operation north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The explosion provides a rare look at a small but potent industry. Chiat said investigators hope to learn more about the sizable distribution network that must have accompanied a facility of this size.

Throughout the afternoon, federal and local agents wearing rubber gloves searched through the crumbling garage. They emerged with gallon jugs, pint-size plastic bottles and mason jars filled with a clear liquid.

How did it taste?

The ATF wasn't offering samples. Instead, Chiat said it would be sent to the agency's laboratory in Rockville, Md., for analysis. "You've got all kinds of run-off, of chemicals and waste," Chiat said. "Really, there was a danger to the community. It's powered through gas or propane; you're heating chemicals, mixing by-products. The potential for something to go awry was big."

Neighbors, meanwhile, professed ignorance about the operation.

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